We must not let the row over British schools descend into an identity war | Zoe Williams | Opinion

Unless the plan is to keep all children off school until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, we ought to be able to have a conversation about their phased return. That debate should of course include the immediate practical concerns of which year groups stand to be take the greatest hit to their educational progress; which age range is least likely to stick to social distancing (reception or teenagers? It’s genuinely hard to say); and how fast or slow they should be eased back in.

But we should also be able to extend our imaginations far enough to consider the risk factors of the virus, as well as where that risk sits in the scope of a child’s life. It would seem civilised to discuss their social isolation as well as the education gaps opening up; the life of the mind as well as the risk to the body.

We have a tendency to discuss children, where they come up against policy, quite mechanistically, as a series of inputs and outcomes: this many teaching hours multiplied by this much deprivation gives you this much equality of opportunity. Kids are also people: they need to socialise; wild abnormality makes them anxious; their creativity doesn’t seem to ignite very readily over Microsoft Teams. These considerations are harder to measure than raw infection numbers, but that shouldn’t put them off-limits.

And yet an absolutism has crept into these discussions that barely leaves room for scientific fact, let alone the more subtle human trade-offs. Some of it is explicable by sheer ignorance, with which I have a lot of sympathy. I could give you chapter and verse on why a Year 6 child has to go back to primary school, before they start at secondary in September: this transition is one of the most seismic events in a school career. The final term is dictated by carefully planned preparation and reassurance as much as it is by Sats. Children also have to say goodbye to a lot of the people they’ve seen most days for most of their lives. I wouldn’t expect anyone who didn’t have a Year 6 child at home to know all this.

But a far more important block to decent decision-making has been the insertion of political identities into what are essentially apolitical matters: for example, a teacher on social media worrying about whether or not kids were vectors of infection was berated as a Marxist, then told she was lazy, a glorified babysitter and could be replaced by an app. Meanwhile, anyone who agrees with children returning to school faces similarly overheated arguments: private schools aren’t planning to go back in June, ergo, you’re being duped into using your kids as cannon fodder.

The unions made a perfectly valid intervention: before we reopen schools, let’s at least equip ourselves to measure the effect on infection rates, and ensure that teachers are protected, as any employee has a right to be. It was interpreted as yet another rebellion of the left against authority.

It is intensely dispiriting to watch all this break down into a set of completely meaningless caricatures and oppositions: parents who care versus those who don’t; unions against patriots; cowardly teachers set against valiant nurses. It bears no relation to the facts as we know them, and makes no reference to the huge uncertainties we face. Yet, while senseless, it feels discursively familiar: “my identity is more pro-social than yours”; “mine more authentic”.

As wearying as this is, I think it’s driven more by the need for security than by any genuine malice for one another. It is hard to discuss facts on the ground without confronting the terrifying deficiencies of our government. We can look at the evidence in New South Wales that infection rates were very low between pupils, and from pupils to staff, but that poses the irresistible question: why have we no similar data sets of our own for those children who have been going to UK schools throughout this crisis? Why didn’t we do any contact tracing, why is there not a single region in the country that could even tell you how many schoolchildren have been infected?

We can consider countries such as Switzerland that have already reopened many schools, and Belgium, with its roadmap helpfully given out so citizens know the plan. Rather than engendering hope, the contrast with our own government is enough to make us despair.

Other nations appear to be slowly bringing the crisis under control. Yet, as our ministers cannot account for the difference in relative trajectories, refuse to even engage in comparisons, have overseen sluggish testing and non-existent tracing, and fundamentally resist scrutiny, it becomes almost painful to confront our impotence.

Why bother comparing evidence and assumptions across Europe and beyond when all it really highlights is that, generally speaking, our situation is worse, and nobody in power is prepared to explain why? At least in a battle between political identities, we can feel as though we have some control over the argument. Without that, we’re simply buffeted from one closed door to another, disempowered and infantilised by a political class that itself has no grip or maturity.

Plainly, though, this is self-defeating. As soon as we sort ourselves by ideological type, we’re deaf to any expertise that doesn’t suit our case, strangers to nuance. If the culture war is a comfort blanket, it is a pretty flimsy one for a situation like this. Ultimately, viruses don’t care whether you’re a Marxist or a free-market fundamentalist.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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